Saturday, February 9, 2019

"Dark and Terrible": What Killed Two of the Best Games You've Never Heard Of?

Part I: Two Games, Alike In Dignity

In back-to-back years, 2005 and 2006, gaming juggernaut Wizards of the Coast (the company behind probably the biggest tabletop game on earth, Magic: The Gathering) unleashed two new and innovative games on the gaming public. Both followed the Magic model. Both had unique features that set them apart from anything else on the market. Both seemed to be well-received by the gaming audience.
And both would be gone from the tabletop landscape by the fall of 2007.
The games, Hecatomb and Dreamblade, ended up being footnotes in the history of tabletop gaming, and in the history of Wizards of the Coast - just two game lines, remarkable though they were, that were here and gone too soon. That’s not too unusual in the toy and game business.
But they could have been a lot more. And they just... weren't.
And, despite a lot of fans, a lot of speculation and a lot of disparate information floating out in the aether of the information superhighway, there’s never been anything definitive discussing these games and what made them fall from grace.
If you follow me on Twitter, or know me in real life, you know I have an attachment to games like these, games that - for all their possibility, their ingenuity, and the care and craft behind them - just didn’t make it, for whatever reason. I’m drawn to the obscure, to the stories behind them, to the hunt for clues and details. Especially when the games are as special, as evocative (and, let's put it out there, as fun!) as Hecatomb and Dreamblade were.
In this series of posts, I’d like to take a look at these games, and the forces around them, and try to come up with some concrete reasons for what ended up taking them down.
I should start off by clarifying that I’m not an industry insider but any means; I don’t have access to sales charts, balance sheets, memos, emails, or “smoking gun” documents that point to clear, definitive answers. What I’ve got is a lot of research into the fan communities that supported these games, and the information, the theories, and the emotions that they had. I hope by the end of this I won’t so much have THE answers as to why Hecatomb and Dreamblade aren’t continuing to wow gamers now (while, for instance, Magic has survived 26 years with no end in sight), but maybe more of an folk history about how the gaming community viewed and theorized about their demise - and whether any of those theories hold any water.
And, since very little has been written about either game, hopefully that might just be good enough.
So in this first installment, I want to give you some background into the two games we’ll be talking about. In forthcoming posts I’ll go more in depth into the games themselves, their lives… and what forces may have killed them.

The Games


Boxes of the base set of Hecatomb and its
two expansions.

Hecatomb (the name, from the Greek, means a public sacrifice to a particular god, usually of 100 animals), was a collectible card game (now called a trading card game) which premiered at GenCon in August of 2005. If I needed a snappy description for it, Hecatomb could perhaps be summed up with this phase: It was Magic: The Gathering’s “goth cousin.”
Hecatomb had a particularly grim concept behind it: Unlike in Magic, where the players portray “Planeswalkers” who summon creatures and cast spells in a magician's duel, in Hecatomb each player portrays an “Endbringer,” whose goal is, simply, to end the world. Unlike the asymmetrical gameplay of Dungeons & Dragons, where the players are the heroes and the dungeon master portrays the evil mastermind, in Hecatomb, there are no heroes. Each player is essentially vying for the right to end the world their own way, trying to secure 20 souls, which symbolize a certain number of followers.
Thematically, the game drew on a number of sources, from the Mythos tales of H. P. Lovecraft (Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, Hastur, Nyarlathotep, Gugs and other beasts of the Lovecraftian menagerie have a major presence), to various world cultures and mythologies (Aztec, Egyptian, Greek, and so on), with a healthy dose of science fiction and gritty urban fantasy thrown in as well.
Each card - Minions, Relics, Fates and Gods - belonged to one of four particular “Dooms”, roughly coordinating with the mana colors in Magic: Deceit was blue, Greed was green, Destruction was red, and Corruption was gray.
Hecatomb’s gameplay and mechanics owed a great deal to Magic. Players summoned “minions,” the casting costs of which they paid for by “tapping” mana, just like in Magic. Unlike Magic, where there are dedicated land cards to use as mana sources, in Hecatomb any card could be played in your mana zone as a mana card. In combat, minions that have been combined into “abominations” of two minions or more are “tapped” and can either be blocked by other abominations or, if not, they can reap souls from the enemy endbringer.
What made the game innovative is that, unlike other TCGs at the time, Hecatomb was played with plastic, pentagonal cards of which four of the five sides are transparent. When “stitching” minions together to create abominations, the cards are stacked on top of one another in such a way that the top text of each card appears through a transparent side, creating a creature (no more than 5 cards high) with specific abilities and statistics. Many of the cards had abilities that triggered when they were played on a card of another color. Thus, the timing of the cards and the order in which they were played was paramount.
Originally, the game was played with a 40-card deck, but that was later altered to make 60-card decks the norm. The rules booklet advised that players make decks using cards from two of the dooms instead of more or fewer to give the best play options.

Two of the rare "God" cards from the final Hecatomb expansion

During its brief 8-month life, Hecatomb produced three sets - the base set and a second set, Last All Hallow’s Eve, and a second expansion, Blanket of Lies. The base set was available in 40-card “starter decks” as well as 13-card booster packs. Last All Hallow’s Eve was available only in boosters; it and the bast set each contained 144 cards. Blanket of Lies, however, took on the theme of a world ending via alien invasion, and so included a lot of the mythology related to Roswell, government conspiracies, cover-ups, and so on. That expansion had only 72 cards, and was also only available in booster packs; each Blanket of Lies booster included a cardboard insert which explained two new additions to the game’s mechanics introduced in the set, as well as the Endbringer’s League, an organized competitive play component of the game, supported by Wizards.
The announcement to cancel the game was made on the Hecatomb website in May of 2006 - less than three short months before Dreamblade would make its own premier at that year’s GenCon.


A selection of miniatures from the Dreamblade
expansion Chrysotic Plague

Dreamblade was not the first foray by Wizards of the Coast into the Collectible Miniatures Game (CMG) market (about which I’ll have more to say in later posts), nor would it be the last. But it was probably their most ambitious.
Like Hecatomb, Dreamblade drew heavily on elements that had already proved successful in Magic, as well as in WotC’s previous CMGs, and you could also draw a fairly strong comparative line to Hecatomb in other ways.
The concept behind Dreamblade involved the players taking on the personas of “Dream Lords”, specially-trained psychics who are battling for supremacy over the Dreamscape, a realm where humanity’s consciousness journeys while they sleep, but actually goes deeper and darker than anyone ever suspected. The Dream Lords used their abilities to spawn, and battle each other with, creatures culled from nightmares and archetypes of the collective unconscious. This is a fairly sophisticated concept, drawn in part from Jungian psychology, which was likely lost on the vast majority of players.
Unlike Hecatomb and Magic, Dreamblade was a game played two-dimensionally, with the pieces moving around a board, instead of cards being played in a static space. Instead of a standard miniatures game of the day, which used a paper battle mat divided into 1-inch squares for movement and copied many elements of popular tabletop wargames like Warhammer 40,000, the Dreamscape (which, yes, was a large, colorful paper mat) was separated into a grid of 25 large squares. Certain squares were worth points to each player if they controlled them at the end of a round; players also received points for destroying opposing miniatures. Whoever scored the most points in a particular round claimed that round, and the first player to win six rounds won the game.
Unlike Magic and Hecatomb, there was no “mana” used by players to “spawn” their creatures into the Dreamscape. At the start of a round the players rolled simple D6s and the combination of those numbers (excluding 1s rolled) was was the amount of “spawn points” available to each player.
However, that wasn’t all. In addition to a spawn cost, each piece had an “Aspect Cost.” Like Hecatomb, which featured four factions called “Dooms,” Dreamblade had four factions called “Aspects,” which represented fundamental forces in the dreamscape, each with a corresponding color which appeared on the creature’s base. They were Valor (Blue, with an icon of Crossed Swords), Passion (Red, with a fireball), Fear (Green, with a skull) and Madness (Gray, with a tentacle). Each piece had a certain number of aspect icons, representing an additional cost. Any miniatures a player had play of that aspect could satisfy that cost.
Gameplay was pretty dynamic. Combat was prosecuted via the rolling of proprietary dice, which had three sides denoting 1, 2 or 3 points of damage, two sides which were blank, and one side with a “blade” icon on it. The blade icons would activate abilities possessed by a certain creature. Each creature had two damage numbers - one which would be enough to “displace” the creature, meaning to send it to another place in the dreamscape, or to outright destroy it. Destroying the creature of course got it off the board, but it also gave the players who owned it additional spawn points next turn. So there were strategic choices to be made.
As a game focused on area control, creatures with special rules and abilities that provided additional movement were prized (a player had only two “action” phases per turn, and could only either move all of their pieces or attack with them, no mixing and matching allowed). The rarest and most sought-after piece in the game, Scarab Warcharm, had abilities that could allow movement for a number of allied pieces, provided you rolled enough blades.
The miniatures drew from a wide range of imagery and were, in my opinion, some of the most diverse and interesting tabletop miniatures every produced. The miniature designs reached across world cultures, genres (sci-fi, horror, fantasy), and also into the realm of the outright bizarre and surreal. Drawing on WotC’s usage of transparent colored plastics as "special effects" in their previous minis lines, Dreamblade ended up with a number of evocative, unique miniatures.
Dreamblade, in addition to the base set, produced four expansions - Baxar’s War, Chrysotic Plague, Anvilborn, and Night Fusion. There was a starter set which was the only way to get the necessary dice and playmats and included 16 minis; booster packs were sold in packs of seven minis, and each also included a sheet of paper which was a combination set checklist and introduction to any new rules elements in a respective set.
Dreamblade lasted 14 months, with the announcement that it would be cancelled coming on Oct. 9, 2007.
But why did these two games, with so much going for them, end up being consigned to the dustbin of the game room?
We’ll get into that next time.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The Geek Subscription Box Boom

Today in The Cube: 

This past weekend, I was rummaging around in one of our kitchen cupboards, when I rediscovered this mug, which I’d completely forgotten I had:

This mug, and a whole bunch of other merch, came from one of the several geek subscription boxes I tried out a few years ago, and it got me recalling what it was like when I’d get a monthly box of wacky surprise stuff in the mail.

The early 2010s were the wild west of what I’ve called the “Geek Box Boom” - when subscription boxes aimed at nerds, gamers, comic book geeks, tabletop gaming enthusiasts, splatterpunks and others, were new and novel, and there seemed to be an infinite variety of them.

Now, subscription boxes are everywhere - it’s hard, for instance, to listen to a podcast without being assaulted by at least one subscription box advertisement, whether it be for shaving razors (Harry’s and Dollar Shave Club), meal preparation kits (Blue Apron, Hello Fresh), clothing (Stitch Fix, Bomb Fell), true crime hobbyists (Hunt a Killer) and more (Ipsy for makeup, Art Box for art supplies, NatureBox for healthy snacks… the list goes on, truly) - but it feels to me like geek boxes really cleared the path for the rest of these boxes to enter into the marketplace.

Why the heck do we even like subscription boxes, in the first place? Part of it is the convenience. You subscribe, so your credit card is charged every month without having to think about it, and the stuff just arrives at your house. Cynics would no doubt argue that it shows something about Millennials that they’d rather get stuff in the mail than interact with real people but, c’mon, you can’t blame Millennials for destroying everything all the time.

But also, it’s FUN. Especially when it came to the geek boxes, you never knew what you were going to get. Sure, some of them had a monthly theme, but once the postman dropped off the box at your house, there you had, in your hands, a perfect personal parcel of potent possibility. It was like your own blind box stuffed with treasure.

I first started in on the geek subscription box trend with Horror Block. While Loot Crate started up in 2012 and is definitely the most well-known of the geek boxes (heck, most of the other boxes out there called themselves some version of “________ Crate” afterwards), the Nerd Block company, out of Canada, started a year later. 

One of my Horror Block hauls

Nerd Block was different than Loot Crate because, at the time, they offered an assortment of themed subscription boxes, while Loot Crate really only offered their standard crate (whose themes changed every month). Nerd Block had their standard grab-bag Nerd Block box, then there was Nerd Block Jr. (for kids), then there was Horror Block (for horror fans), and Gamer Block (for video gamers). Other blocks later followed, including one for comics.

I was lured in by Horror Block, and it didn’t disappoint. In each box, you’d get an issue of Rue Morgue magazine, a horror-themed t-shirt in your size, and a series of other items - could be a book, a DVD/Blu-Ray, a scary plush (I still have the Chucky plush, which frightens my kids), a film cell, trading cards, and other stuff. Make no mistake, the boxes were PACKED. In one memorable October box, one of the items was a full-sized Freddy Krueger latex mask. In another box, I got the Blu-Ray of “The Puppet Master.”

I tried out Gamer Block as well (not as cool, but I did get a plush of Link from Legend of Zelda, and my Starfox Coffee mug), and also their comic box, which was OK but not what I really was looking for.

I did give into the hype and try out Loot Crate, and ended up being disappointed. While there were some cool things (like the Xenomorph ReAction figure from ‘Alien’) I just felt that the items weren’t as high-quality as the Nerd Blocks, and a higher percentage of them just felt like they were throw-ins from a dollar store. Though, to be fair, Loot Crate also did sometimes put in Funko Pops, and some apparel that was fun (I got a pair of “Dancing Baby Groot” socks that I loved, and I wore those things till they fell apart - I’m pretty rough on my socks).

For a while, it did seem like there was an arms race between Nerd Block and Loot Crate to see who could get the better items.

Something that was fun about all of these services were the boxes themselves - the Nerd Block family had really nifty box art; heck, the Gamer Block box looked just like an original NES game system. The Loot Crate Boxes, while their exteriors were always the same, had illustrated interiors that were designed to be used for displaying the items that you got. 

Part of the marketing scheme for these companies was to enlist you in helping to sell the product - the Nerd Block boxes explicitly encouraged you to Instagram your loot, and a lot of us did. Unboxing videos for these services, posted by customers, also cropped up all over YouTube.

As a big tabletop gaming nerd, I also tried out some Magic: The Gathering subscription boxes, and they were uniformly pretty good. You’d get a few packs of cards, some dice, and/or maybe other items, depending on the box you picked. Perhaps presaging the “geek box bubble” that would come in a few years, the very first Magic box I tried, which was excellent, closed its doors after two months. However another, called Fantasy Crate, is still apparently going strong. 

One of my Fantasy Crate Hauls

One box I tried was called the “Dead Crate,” and it featured out-of-print (or “Dead”) card games. Now, of course, this could be seen as a great way to get rubes to pay to take outdated inventory off of your hands (I mean, obviously, that’s what it was) but it was still fun. I also tried out what was then the premier comic book box, Comic Bento, and got some neat graphic novels from it, but it wasn’t enough to hold my interest. 

A Dead Crate haul

After a while, though, I drifted away from the boxes. Some of them started to get repetitive, with the same sorts of items appearing over and over. Further, I just didn’t have enough space to keep storing all of this stuff. And, of course, they weren’t cheap. Each Horror Block, including shipping, was almost $40, and that’s a lot of scratch to devote each month to random horror crap, no matter how fun it is. Loot Crate, at about $25 including shipping, was more reasonable, but just not worth it to me to keep up a subscription. A bunch of the items I ended up selling to the local “geek thrift shop” that bought old video games and such.

And it looks like I got out at the right time. In the summer of 2017, the big news came: Nerd Block had filed to bankruptcy. In the court filings, published by Bleeding Cool, it showed that the company owed huge sums of money to a variety of companies (Including Diamond Comics Distributors, Funko, and others) and even owed money to its own executives. Comics Bento also shuttered around the same time; a budget box called 1Up Box also called it quits.

In early 2018, Nerd Block posted on its website that it was coming back, and had some partnerships in progress. But it’s been almost a year, and there’s nothing new on their website; their formerly active Twitter account has been dormant since then.

But Loot Crate still seems to be going strong. Instead of one or two different boxes, the company now offers no fewer than 21 different boxes to choose from, ranging from the original box, to boxes themed by franchise (Firefly, wrestling, Marvel, Harry Potter) and by genre (gaming, anime, horror, clothing, etc.). The prices range from a reasonable $11.99+S&H for the LootWear crate, to a whopping $59.99+S&H a month for the Star Wars crate. That's a lot of Force to be with you.

And there are still a ton of other geek crates out there. Wargaming company Privateer Press has their own subscription box, there’s a box for tabletop games, for miniatures hobbyists, and still more and more geek boxes than you can easily shake a stick at.

And me? I’m fine just sipping coffee from my Starfox Coffee mug.

Although, to be honest, that LootWear crate is pretty tempting…

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

I'll Miss Nerd Lunch: An Appreciation

Today in The Cube:

It doesn’t escape my notice that my last post before going on my extended Thanksgiving-Holiday Season break was a eulogy of a well-known fixture of pop culture. And now I return to raise a glass to another of my favorites that is walking off into the sunset sometime soon.
It was announced on Tuesday’s episode of the podcast, Nerd Lunch “Prime”, that the long-running podcast will be ending at a point in the future. The exact date isn’t known, and the discussion on the episode left open the possibility that they may continue podcasting even for another year. Still, the announcement somewhat shocked, and definitely made an impact on, me.
I wasn’t completely blindsided by it, to be honest. Last month saw the final episode of Nerd Lunch’s “Rabbit Hole” podcast, where members literally and deliberately fall down Wikipedia holes, starting from one entry and trying to reach another by judicious clicking of links. The end of this show, one of my favorites (and what initially attracted me to Nerd Lunch in the first place), made me wonder if any other big changes were in store.
And, apparently, they were.
Now, I don’t know any of the Nerd Lunch folks personally, and I won’t speculate on why the show is ending, simply because I haven’t a clue. I do know that podcasting and even blogging isn’t easy (I've done both), and can be very time consuming, especially in an increasingly crowded and, often, angry marketplace. The effort that you put in is almost universally unequal to the feedback and community engagement you get back. Bloggers I've had discussions with on Twitter are often at loggerheads about what to do about it. I don’t blame anybody who wants to take a break and/or try something new. 
While I was a relatively recent convert to Nerd Lunch (I’ve been listening for about the last year or so), I nevertheless felt that I knew the guys on the episodes. They were knowledgeable, they presented interesting topics, and they were funny and engaging. Furthermore, they were civil, convivial, and produced fun shows. 
Here’s hoping that whatever the next chapter will be for CT and all the rest of the Nerd Lunch crew, it will be fun, fulfilling, and just as nerdy.
Please put your trash in the receptacle.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Remembering Stan Lee

Like most of us, I grew up hearing the voice of Stan Lee, usually associated with Marvel’s spate of Saturday morning cartoons in the 1990s (including the much beloved, and somewhat obscure “Pryde of the X-Men” standalone episode). And now, sadly, that voice is silenced.
Stan Lee died Monday at 95. I’m certainly not the only geek/nerd/aficionado to eulogize him this week, nor likely the most eloquent. I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him, after all.
The battle for Lee’s cultural legacy began almost the instant the news of his passing hit the internet. Was he a bombastic, effusive creative genius, or did he play the comics industry’s self-aggrandizing Edison to Kirby and Ditko’s Tesla? That’s a debate for better (or worse) minds than mine. I only admired him from afar.
You absolutely couldn’t mistake Lee’s presence. He had a trademark look - mustache, big glasses, salt and pepper hair, and a constant, toothy grin - than transcended the eras and the changes in fashion. No matter the photo you see of him, no matter the decade, you know immediately that it’s Stan Lee.
What makes him important for me, I think, is this major point: Stan Lee made it OK to be a geek. In a culture now where “geek” is a term whose possession is fought over by all kinds of groups, and where so-called “geek culture” is ubiquitous, it’s easy to forget that there was a time when liking comic books, when talking about superheroes, was something for nerds and outcasts. It got you laughed at, not applauded. I remember those days vividly.
But Stan Lee was an adult who was out there, talking about comic books. He MADE comic books, created the heroes that we loved. Smiling, excited, bright-eyed behind the glasses, Lee personified the kind of ebullience we all felt inside about our nascent, hidden nerdy passions, but he had the courage to let it out. And so could we. Stan Lee made it OK to be a geek.
Without him, literally, the “geek industrial complex” that exists now would never have come into being. Unlike Scott McCloud, comics’ modern apologist, who has tried to argue why the medium should be looked at from an artistic perspective, Lee knew that comics and superheroes were fun. They were entertaining. And they were nothing to be ashamed of.
Stan Lee made it OK to be a geek.
So unfurl that geek flag, today, folks. Do something nerdy for ol’ Stan. It’s what he would have wanted.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

More Nonsense

Today in The Cube:

Here's this week's roundup of pop culture nonsense:

• The CBC’s “Schitt’s Creek” had its fourth season drop on Netflix, and my wife and I gobbled up its 12 episodes like fun-size Snickers. The show follows the Roses, a wealthy family of video store magnates who were robbed blind by their accountant and, with the government coming after them with a mighty tax bill they can’t pay, have to live in the one asset left them, the tiny rural village of Schitt’s Creek, which the family patriarch, played by Eugene Levy, bought his son, David (played by Levy’s son, and the series co-creator, Daniel Levy), as a joke.
This is one of the few newer scripted TV shows that I actually enjoy, and part of it is the writing. The characters have actual story arcs and true character development and growth. By the end of Season 4, the two Rose children, David and Alexis (Annie Murphy), hardly resemble the characters they were in the first season. The acting is also amazing, with Catherine O’Hara turning in performances as matriarch Moira Rose that are as filled with pathos as they are hilarious.
Something else that I enjoy is the fact that where most network sit-coms would take some of the plot complications “Schitt’s Creek” deals with and make them into entire, tiresome season-long themes, “Schitt’s Creek” just deals with them and moves on. Y’know, like real people do. Fantastic show.
• My wife and I have watched the first couple episodes of Amazon Prime’s much-hyped “The Romanoffs” and… it’s okay, I guess? It’s an anthology series, with one episode coming out every week, all loosely tied together by the fact that some of the characters claim some connection to that ill-fated Russian royal family. It’s created by the creator of “Mad Men,” and there are actors from that series who show up, but so far I haven’t seen anything that really keeps my particular attention. It’s well-shot, well-acted, with self-contained episodes that are about interpersonal human dramas of varying kinds. But, in all, it just feels very monotone.
• Netflix recently premiered the costuming for Henry Cavill’s character in the upcoming “The Witcher” series, complete with long whitish wig. Unfortunate comparisons to Legolas followed.
• Also announced lately was that the upcoming season of Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black” will be its last. Which is perfectly fine with me, since the show hasn’t been up to its usual standard since Season 2. OITNB and “House of Cards” were Netflix’s headlining TV series, and with one sunsetting, and the other being heavily retooled after the Kevin Spacey scandal, it’ll be interesting to see where the service goes from here.
• The long-awaited sandbox cowboy video game epic Red Dead Redemption 2 premiered almost two weeks ago, and my twitter feed was divided into two groups: Those who were playing the game and those who weren’t playing the game and lamented that fact. I haven’t played a video game since about 2014, and only use my PS3 to play Blu-Rays so… that’s all I have to say about it. If you clicked on this article thinking you’d get a review of the game, you got punked.

• I’ve been a fan of spooky and true crime podcasts, my go-to being the powerhouse that is Last Podcast on the Left. However, by complete chance last week I saw a tweet mentioning a podcast called “Ghoul on Ghoul.” Hosted by Pittsburgh-area residents Sarah and Amanda, these ladies plumb the depths of the haunted, the weird and the outre with a characteristically wild sense of humor that’s genuinely hilarious. The first episode I happened to listen to was “Medieval Butt Science” and, believe me, it’s got me wanting to come back for more. A definite recommendation.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Halloween Wrap-Up!

Today in The Cube:

Well, as Charlie Brown once said, another Halloween has come and gone. Like many of you, I start my Spooky Season around July or August, with varying degrees of success.
While I don’t do Halloween as large as I know a lot of you do, there are certain traditions that I make sure I do every year: Watch the 1978 ‘Halloween,’; read or listen to ‘The Call of Cthulhu,’; carve a jack-o-lantern; watch ‘Return of the Living Dead’; and pass out candy to the trick-or-treaters.
I thought I’d do a wrap-up this year of some of the trends and tidings I saw during the 2018 season:

It was the grudge match of grudge matches in my neighborhood this season, between the folks who have Halloween Decorations and the folks who have Harvest Decorations. Halloween Decorations are, of course, the spooky stuff - jack-o-lanterns, skeletons, witches, you name it. Harvest is a bit more… agrarian. Pumpkins, gourds, cornstalks, hay bales, and frequently wreaths and, weirdly enough, big, artfully “distressed” wooden signs that say “Harvest!” or “Welcome Harvest!” or “It’s Harvest Time!” on them. Also, happy scarecrows. Lots of 'em.
Sure, you’ll find the odd house that sort of combines the two, likely so they can take down the spooky after the 31st and still keep the harvest up through Thanksgiving.
But by and large, either a house will be a Halloween House, or a Harvest House. And where I live, it’s about 50-50.
For the Halloween houses, the biggest trend in the neighborhood has been “hanging stuff from trees.” Most notably, the most popular of the hanging decorations have been these “wraith” decorations, consisting of a hooded skeleton head with a gauzy, cape-like body. Effective, to be sure, especially when you're walking your dog past the house at 5:30 in the morning.

For whatever reason, I found myself a little nostalgic for the “Clownpocalypse” hysteria that gripped the United States, and a few points international, during the fall of 2016. For those who don’t recall, starting in the south and expanding essentially to the entire United States, there were mushrooming reports of “creepy clowns” made to police and other law enforcement agencies. These clowns were reportedly doing everything form window peeping to chasing people around to perpetrating acts of violence. If you want a fuller reporting, MuckRock produced a fun article that compiles some of the more entertaining incidents reported to police during that time.
Even when it was happening (I was on the crime beat for the local paper at the time and covered a few clown sightings that were reported locally) folks were wondering what was behind it. Were the sightings real? Mass hysteria? Viral marketing for the new version of “IT” that was slated to hit theaters? Even today, we don’t have any answers. And the sightings abruptly stopped being reported after the 2016 election. So… who knows?

I got into listening to what I refer to as “zombie surf rock” this season - basically, think of the kind of instrumental rock that came out of California in the 1960s, mixed with The Monster Mash and the themes from The Addams Family and The Munsters, and you’ve pretty much got it. It’s campy, it’s fun, and it fits my mood for this time of year. I’m particularly interested in a group called “The Ghastly Ones.” Good stuff.

See You Next Week

Sunday, July 30, 2017

How Magic: The Gathering Lost its Magic for Me

Today in The Cube:

Please first of all understand I am no casual Magic: The Gathering fan.
I started playing in 2009 and was immediately hooked. I began amassing a collection that amounted to an estimated 20,000-plus cards. I played nearly every week, honing my skills at Standard, Modern and EDH. I completed viable Tron, WB Tokens, and BR 8Rack decks. I was a frequent quest on a popular Magic podcast, MTGYou. I played MODO for a while and was a constant card trader on Puca Trade and other services. When I could, I participated in pre-releases and other tournaments. I subscribed to monthly Magic mail-order services.
For the better part of a decade, Magic was my #1 hobby.
And then, it wasn’t.
Starting late last year, I began liquidating much of my collection, selling off my high-value cards, my bulk, keeping only about 10 percent of my collection.
Magic had just… lost its magic for me.
And here’s why:

1. Difficulty finding the time and the players.
In a job with an ever-shifting schedule, it’s hard to keep up a steady time to play, especially with increasing family demands on top of work. For a time I was able to play in the early afternoons, but my friend/opponent’s schedule changed and that scotched that opportunity after about a year or so. Those factors also generally preclude me from playing at pre-releases and FNMs.
Additionally, beyond organizing your cards and building a deck, there’s little that you can really do with Magic in a hobby sense when you’re not actually playing the game. And you can only re-organize your cards so often.

2. The Money Game.
In case you haven’t been paying attention, let me break it down for you: Magic is expensive. The game thrives on an ever-shifting Standard metagame, which requires players to keep buying packs and boxes of the cards “in rotation.” I would generally buy a new or “repack” box of a set once it came out, but at roughly $100 a pop, that’s a lot of money to shell out each year for pieces of pretty cardboard. And if you want to play Modern, those decks can easily run into the hundreds of dollars even for a low-level deck.
I’ve also long been discouraged by the focus on “value” in Magic. Too, too many players look at their cards like others look at stocks and commodities: as pieces of property that can be held to gain in value so they can either trade them or, more likely, sell them off at a later date. Card prices fluctuate wildly based on many factors, not least of which is whether a card does well in tournaments, which are increasingly streamed online.
Whether Wizards of the Coast likes to admit it or not, part of the driving popularity of Magic for many players is the prospect of opening a pack and getting a high-value card. The fact that more and more varieties of ultra-rare special cards are finding their way into sets seems to prove my point for me.

3. Competition.
The focus of Magic should be fun, but too often, it’s not. I’ve discussed this both on this blog and also on the digital airwaves, but the focus on “competition” in Magic, I feel, is largely responsible for a number of the ills people have complained about in the game’s culture (which I’ll get to below). The game’s chief cheerleader, Mark Rosewater, long ago defined three types of players: Timmy, who plays the game more for its aesthetic appeal; Johnny, who adds to that an interest in healthy competition; and Spike, the player with the killer instinct.
Too often, the game seems to attract “Spikes” into the ranks of players. Again, whether WotC will admit it or not, the game’s tenets tacitly take aim at players with the hope of becoming “power players”: if you have the right cards, and the right deck, you can rule your local scene. Maybe get into a PTQ. Maybe go on the Pro Tour.
I’ll admit I was caught up in the kind of thought. That’s what drew me into Modern, into the competitive play of that bouncing format. Until I realized I was building decks, full of expensive cards, that I’d likely only use a couple times a year, if that, in actual competitive play. I felt like a chump. And it’s difficult to keep up with the shifting metagame of any format - new deck lists, new strategies, new articles, are all continually being churned out by the Magic-industrial complex to keep players hungry for the next leg-up on their opponents.

4. Cultural Toxicity.
The competition I talked about above seems to bring a certain type of player into the scene. Magic has drawn criticism in recent years for being surrounded by a toxic gaming culture. How female players are treated; the infamous “crackgate” incident, which drew some mainstream media attention; and a number of high-profile cheating scandals have combined to make it seem to some that the game’s social aspect is broken.
I’ve encountered this aggressive Magic “bro-culture” on a number of occasions, and it’s one reason I don’t enjoy playing in tournaments. I always try to be courteous and engender a sense of collegiality when I play, so I dislike it intensely when, for instance, a player says not a word to me, proceeds to beat me soundly in three straight games, and then after a perfunctory “good game” walks off; when, after you win a match, your opponent, who’s been snickering with his friend the whole time you’ve played, acts as though you had no business even playing against him anyway (let alone beating him), picks up his deck, and leaves; or, when, after being beaten, my opponent decides to outline for me point by point all the mistakes I made. This kind of aggressive “Alpha”-type player isn’t a great ambassador for the game and, unfortunately, is one reason why Magic has the reputation it does in some quarters.
I still love Magic. I still get together with a group of my friends every once in a while and play EDH. And, to be totally honest, the positive interactions I’ve had resulting from this game outnumber the bad. But for the reasons outlined above, I had to step back. Step away. Put the value of my cards, my time, and my energy, to better use.

I had to find the magic somewhere else.